Though it seems insane to put a massive Hollywood tentpole movie in the hands of an unproven helmer, blockbusters have often been the realm of young turk directors. These days it’s especially common, with studios hoping to strike gold by scooping up fresh talent, sometimes before their debut film is even out. This approach has led to both revelations and disasters alike, and isn’t showing any signs of going out of fashion. Still, it’s refreshing to hear when a seasoned director will be taking the reins on something lavish and spectacular. The excitement of a fresh perspective (or a potential trainwreck) is fun, but sometimes you want to go into a movie fairly confident that you’ll be greeted with something polished, the work of a consummate professional.
And yet, you can still get surprised can’t you? Veteran directors, masters of their craft, can still have misfires, and if there’s any movie that feels like a misfire from a big name, it’s Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. While technically proficient, Spielberg’s latest feels odd, awkward, an aimless misshapen thing with uneven pacing and not enough under the hood. The visuals are frequently on point, and the actual craft that went into it is as striking and confident as you’d expect from Spielberg, yet you spend a good chunk of it unsure of where it’s all going, and an even greater chunk of it kinda bored.
Adapted from the book of the same name by the legendary Roald Dahl, the film sees an orphan named Sophie wisked away to the land of giants after a chance encounter with the titular Big Friendly Giant. The BFG spends his days collecting and distributing dreams, all while putting up with the bullying of the much larger and meaner giants he lives with, any of whom would gladly make a meal of Sophie if given the chance. Sophie and BFG become friends, and she sets out to help him find a better life.
So first, the good stuff: from a purely aesthetic standpoint, The BFG is a testament to Spielberg’s skill and confidence as a director. The numerous set-pieces are all well-staged and conceived, and the film overall has a refreshingly bright, exaggerated, larger-than-life aesthetic. The colors pop, and the art direction inhabits that perfect realm between over-designed and under-designed. It feels appropriately fable-like, with a heightened reality that works for children’s movies.
A third or so of the movie takes place in London, that wholly fictional, wholly magical London that you only really see in American films. The only thing thicker than the fog is the accents, and all the cars are curved, elegant 50s models, despite the film taking place in the 80s. It feels like the first two Harry Potter movies, and in a good way. The problem isn’t so much with this world and the atmosphere so much as with the story we’re seeing unfold within it, or perhaps the lack thereof. The BFG doesn’t feel like it has enough plot to fill a two-hour runtime, and it doesn’t take long at all before the sense that it’s spinning its wheels sets in.
For the first half or so of the film, there aren’t really any stakes or long-term goals to keep things moving forward, and as a result there’s a critical lack of story momentum. For much of the movie, it doesn’t really feel like it’s going anywhere. When some kind of story does eventually turn up, that isn’t any guarantee that things will pick up, however. Eventually we find a long-term goal in the salvation of BFG from the bigger giants, who routinely kidnap and eat human children. A plan is hatched to achieve this, and then almost immediately the film goes off on a bizarre tangent involving an extended lunch scene where any sense of urgency or momentum gets pushed to the side in favor of, well…food porn and fart jokes. And not even good fart jokes, or even jokes at all. Just farts.
None of this is made any better by the fact that the film’s two leads, Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill, can’t ever quite carry it. Rylance is fun, but his performance never feels like more than a caricature, a collection of funny mannerisms without much going on underneath (not unlike the film as a whole). Barnhill, meanwhile, just feels bland. Part of this is the writing, which never gives Sophie much of a character or personality. She’s one of those unfortunate child characters that doesn’t feel as though she’s written as a person, with complex emotions and an arc. She’s just The Child, a narrative device for eliciting a sense of wonder and occasionally peril. It’s possible that Barnhill might have been injected enough personality and charm into the role to make Sophie feel more three dimensional, but sadly she just isn’t up to it.
The BFG is proof that even a director with a solid track record and years of experience can still make missteps. Despite a high degree of technical proficiency and visual charm, the film’s narrative is almost a no-show. It’s like a beautifully woven rug cut to a strange, irregular shape. No matter how you arrange it or where, it doesn’t look right. It’s awkward and plodding, lacking enough plot momentum to keep most viewers engaged, despite everything it does have going for it.